Memo to science nerds: Learn improv

Scientists are taking cues from actors, to keep audiences from snoozing

Alan Alda and others at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University lead a workshop for Cornell science faculty on how to communicate effectively. An exercise invited Cornell scientists to explain a complicated piece of science to three members of the public (standing): Bea Brockner, Tracy Davenport and Billy Kepner.
Cornell University Photography

Feeling sleepy at work? What you need is a pillow printer.

“This printer will 3-D print out your pillow, so you get a clean, fresh pillow every time,” says Cara Moravec, a graduate student in  genetics at Stony Brook University on Long Island. “And the best part about this is the pillow is biodegradable. At the end of the day, you just recycle your pillow and you’re good to go! The pillow printer — only five payments of $19.99!”

Moravec is not an aspiring infomercial announcer, nor is the pillow printer an actual product. Her pitch is part of an exercise in an improvisational-theater class for scientists who want to improve their communication skills. In the exercise, students have 90 seconds to develop a pitch for a product that combines two unrelated objects. Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, the class instructor, explains that the task parallels the challenge scientists face in communicating their work to the public.

“Scientists need to make abstract concepts clear and relevant to any audience they are talking to,” says Lantz-Gefroh. The exercise “is a playful way of getting them to be vivid and expressive when selling a nonsensical idea and then apply those lessons to talking about their real science.”

This is particularly important at a time when improving public understanding of the science behind issues such as climate change is critical, when many in the public want to know what they are getting in exchange for government-funded research and when interdisciplinary collaboration among scientists is increasingly common.

The improvisation class is one of several courses offered by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook to help scientists put aside the jargon and connect with the public in language it can understand.

Alda came up with the idea while hosting “Scientific American Frontiers” on PBS from 1993 through 2005. The program followed a conversational format, and Alda labored to get scientists to present their ideas so he — and the audience — could understand them.

“I wondered what would help bring that about if they didn’t have someone calling on them to communicate in a personal way,” recalls Alda. “And I remembered that improvisation had done that for me both as an actor and as a person early in my career.”

On a hunch, a few years after “Scientific American Frontiers” went off the air, Alda had a group of engineers at USC present their work, improvise for a few hours, then talk about their work again. “The difference between the two talks was startling,” Alda says. He pitched a number of universities on the idea of offering classes that would use theatrical techniques to help scientists communicate better, and the center at Stony Brook was founded in 2009. Since then, hundreds of scientists have taken part in the improvisation classes at Stony Brook and workshops the school puts on at institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and Rockefeller University. 

There’s some idea in my head, and I want to transmit it to someone else’s head in such a way that they know it exactly the same way I do.

Colin West

graduate student in physics at Stony Brook

Initially, participants are often skeptical. Colin West, a graduate student in physics at Stony Brook, thought the improvisation class “sounded completely bonkers . . . like some theater department with too much time on their hands.” But after hearing other students’ recommendations, West signed up anyway and found an exercise in the very first session extremely helpful.

The exercise involved asking a partner a question and then trying to speak in unison with the partner as he or she replied. It was difficult at first, but by paying attention to his partner’s body language and phrasing, West found he could do it. Later, while working through the steps of a physics problem with an undergraduate, West paused, and when he began again, he and the student spoke the same exact words. He realized the improvisation exercise had illustrated the mechanics of teaching.

“There’s some idea in my head, and I want to transmit it to someone else’s head in such a way that they know it exactly the same way I do,” West says. “If you’re going to do that, you have to be really tuned in to the other person and really thinking about what phrasing they’re expecting and what they’ll understand and what will be familiar to them.”

Alan Alda talks to scientists about effective communication during a workshop. Members of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University lead a workshop for Cornell science faculty on how to communicate effectively.
Cornell University Photography

Many of the center’s improvisation exercises are designed to help scientists forge a better connection with their audience. An exercise Alda singles out as particularly effective requires one participant to describe his or her scientific work to a fellow student as if the second student were someone with whom the first student has a complicated relationship, such as a former romantic partner or a disappointed boss. Only the speaker knows the nature of the relationship, and the listener has to figure it out.

“It gets them accustomed to communicating in a way that is above and beyond the verbal,” Alda says. “It gets the other person accustomed to looking for cues that are very subtle. But the other thing it does that is unexpected and useful is it helps the scientists understand that there are many different ways to say what they have to say about their work.”

The usual scientist thing would be staring at your shoes, and if you’re an extrovert, you’d be staring at the audience’s shoes

David Muller


David Muller, professor of applied and engineering physics (AEP) and co-director of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science (KIC), participates in an improvisation exercise that requires partners to mirror each other's movements.
Cornell University Photography

The center takes its classes on the road to expose more experienced scientists to improvisation. In 2013, it conducted 23 of these workshops, ranging from a half day to three days long, and is on track to run at least as many this year. The Kavli Foundation, which supports basic science research, has underwritten these workshops through its affiliated institutes at Cornell, Stanford, the University of Chicago and UCLA.

“What makes this program so effective to my eye is that it goes beyond the typical training for communications that takes place at a university,” says James Cohen, the Kavli Foundation’s director of communications and public outreach. “It affects how you relate to people and from there starts to make you a better communicator.”

As co-director of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science, physicist David Muller pitched the workshop to his colleagues as a media-training opportunity, noting, “If you said to physicists, ‘Hey, do you want to do an improv workshop?’ they would look at you like you were crazy.”

Muller found an exercise that involved throwing an imaginary ball around the room helped get the assembled scientists out of their own heads. “The usual scientist thing would be staring at your shoes, and if you’re an extrovert, you’d be staring at the audience’s shoes,” he says. “But this was a way to think about, when you’re talking, be aware of who people are, be aware of where they are and are they paying attention, do you need to make eye contact with them.”

Part of the workshop focused on how Muller’s discovery of a sheet of glass just one molecule thick could be explained in simple English. When the work was first published, it received limited attention. As Guinness World Records prepared to name Muller’s discovery the world’s thinnest sheet of glass, he faced an opportunity for more publicity.

The discovery was the lucky by-product of a lab mistake in which a quartz furnace overheated and melted, producing the thin layer of glass. While Muller was hesitant to dwell on the serendipity of the discovery, Alda encouraged him to emphasize it as a way of connecting emotionally with nonscientists.

“The story we would have told without Alan’s input and feedback from the workshop was, ‘Hey, we have discovered the world’s thinnest sheet of glass — that’s neat,’ and that would have been it,” Muller says. “What Alan keyed in on and what we previously viewed as kind of an embarrassment was (that) the discovery was accidental.”

Researchers at Stony Brook are putting the center’s improvisation training to the test and have found strong indications that it can make graduate students better teachers. Marvin O’Neal, who directs the introductory biology lab sequence at Stony Brook, found that some of his graduate teaching assistants (TAs) struggled with the format, in which they were expected to help students design their own experiments and, ideally, experience the thrill of scientific discovery. Having heard from other TAs that improvisation helped their teaching, O’Neal set up an experiment in spring 2013 in which half his TAs took part in improvisation and the other half did not. At the end of the semester, students in the classes taught by the improvisation-trained TAs scored higher on competency exams and gave the course better evaluations.

“I have been shocked at how quickly just a couple of exercises in improvisation can improve the relationship between instructor and student,” says O’Neal, noting that the improvisation TAs’ course evaluations were as good as those of adjuncts who had taught for years.

Although the performance differences between the two groups of TAs were statistically significant, O’Neal cautions that the sample size was small and the results should be considered preliminary. Nonetheless, O’Neal now has all his TAs take improvisation classes, and TAs for introductory physics and chemistry classes at Stony Brook have begun to take them as well.

The center has launched an affiliate program with other academic institutions — Dartmouth was the first — in which its classes are used as models. Its mission is to expose as many scientists as possible to its idiosyncratic form of communication training and to help bridge the gap between specialists and the general public.

“If you do science, and nobody knows about it, it might as well not have happened,” says Muller. “Being able to explain what we do is important both for capturing a sense of wonder and pleasure and enlightenment you get from the basic work, but also a realistic portrayal of what the potential applications might be.”

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